he college basketball season is upon us.
Hardwood coaches and cagers are gearing up for another year of madness. For the Massachusetts men's basketball team, tomorrow night is the beginning.
At the Curry Hicks Cage, the Minutemen will participate in the annual preseason promotional event called Midnight Madness. The doors open at 9 p.m., and many students will head to the Cage after the hockey team's opener at the Mullins Center that starts at 7 p.m.
For UMass coach Travis Ford, the busy offseason full of promotions and the continuation of his public relations blitz will be put to its first test on Friday night, when the presence of an enthusiastic student crowd is needed for a good atmosphere.
"We're excited about this upcoming season and Midnight Madness is always a great way to kick it off," Ford said. "I think it's incredible for the fans to have a chance to get to look at the new team."
And it is a new team. Four transfers that sat out last season - Gary Forbes, Etienne Brower, Luke Bonner, Tiki Mayben - because of NCAA regulations, will join the Minutemen on the court for the first time on Nov. 4 in UMass' first exhibition of the year.
For the students, Friday night will be the first chance to see these guys in action. Promotional events, including 5-dollar and 10,000-dollar giveaways, as well as a chance to win a Ford Fusion car, will precede the basketball events.
Both the men's and women's teams will be in attendance and are set to compete against one another in a three-point contest.
"I'm too scared to predict that outcome," Ford joked.
Then there's the dunk contest, where the Minutemen will square off against each other ("The guys have been practicing," Ford said) for this year's title. Brower won last year's contest and Ford picked him to hold off the new guys and defend his title.
After the festivities, the men's team will scrimmage and allow the fans to watch the team up close in its first public appearance in Amherst. For Ford, the season couldn't come sooner. In his second year at the helm, Ford spent the offseason preparing a schedule for the upcoming season that includes playing Kentucky, Louisville, and Pittsburgh on the road. Ford is also trying effortlessly to garner student and fan support for the men's team.
It has been a hectic summer that included a team trip to the Bahamas, and Ford hopes that the start of the actual season will take away some of the craziness from off-court activities.
"We had a very busy summer and a very busy recruiting season," Ford said in a phone interview last night. "When you get into the rhythm of practices, it does give you a chance to get away from everything and do what you most enjoy, and that's being on the court. I'm excited to work with a group of guys that are very hungry. We are very anxious for Friday to get here and for our first practice on Saturday."
The recent news for the men's squad has not been good. Chris Lowe, the starting point guard last season who averaged 31 minutes per game as a freshman, was arrested last Thursday for disorderly conduct outside of the Amherst Starbucks. Athletic Director John McCutcheon and Ford suspended Lowe and Nana Ampim - a reserve arrested with Lowe on Thursday - from participation in Midnight Madness, the first exhibition game, and the regular season opener against Dartmouth.
And while fans won't see Lowe or Ampim tomorrow night, Stephane Lasme, Rashaun Freeman, Brandon Thomas, Dante Milligan, and James Life (a prime candidate to win the three-point contest) will all be in attendance.
"The more we can do to really interact with the student body and fans, the more we want to do," Ford said. "That's something that we want to make a special emphasis on this year. We want to make ourselves available for the fans and the students, to get them excited about the season."
Tomorrow night will be a good start. Midnight Madness is always a student favorite. Even if basketball isn't your favorite sport, a get together with a couple thousand other students (the majority will be inebriated) on a Friday night to see the men's basketball team for the first time this year should be a popular event.
And though the Minutemen will have their fun tomorrow night, official season practice starts on Saturday, and it will be all business until the season opener.
Practice will not be a new ordeal to the team this season. Scheduling the Bahamas trip allowed Ford and the Minutemen 10 days of practice before the Aug. 23rd tournament. Ford put in all of his offensive and defensive sets, and - in five games in the Bahamas tournament - the second-year coach got to try out some different combinations and see where the transfers fit in with the lineup from last season.
MHERST, Mass. - The 2006-07 basketball season officially began Friday night as the UMass men's and women's basketball teams held their second annual Midnight Madness event in the Curry Hicks Cage. The capacity crowd was treated to giveaways, a three-point contest, the fan-favorite dunk contest, and a 15-minute scrimmage for the men's team.
Etienne Brower dunks over Travis Ford
Forbes took a one-point edge with his first dunk of the championship round - a 360 degree dunk after grabbing the ball from the outstretched hand of Stephane Lasme who was three feet in front of the goal. Brower countered with a front slam, jumping from inside the free throw line and taking the lob pass from Tiki Mayben who was sitting in the crowd behind the goal.
Forbes couldn't convert his final dunk which gave Brower the window he need to win his second consecutive title. With fans hushed, he placed head coach Travis Ford in front of the goal and elevated over him bringing the crowd to a frenzy.
The night's three-point contest showed fans some sharp-shooting for the upcoming season. Each team picked three shooters who had a minute to hit as many treys as possible. The women's team got off to a hot start thanks to Kim Benton who hit 13 to Luke Bonner's nine. Brandon Thomas was the second shooter for the men and hit 12 to Stephanie Gerardot's seven fueling the men's comeback. James Life and Pam Rosanio were the final shooters and Life put together a show for the fans. He hit 11 - including six straight - while Rosanio struggled hitting just three. The men won the challenge 32-23.
After the dunk contest, the men's team held a 15-minute scrimmage showing fans what they could expect this year. James Life led the way with 14 points including four three pointers, while Gary Forbes was just behind him with 13 points. Stephane Lasme and Rashaun Freeman led the team with four rebounds each. Tiki Mayben was the third leading scorer of the night with eight points and electrified the crowd with some amazing no-look passes.
The night started around 9:30 after fans poured into the Cage following the season-opener for the UMass hockey team. They were treated to performances by the UMass dance team and cheerleading team.
Lucky fans were picked to participate in several contests including a wing-eating contest sponsored by The Hanger.
After the contests, both teams were introduced to the crowd. Head Coaches Marnie Dacko and Travis Ford each addressed the fans thanking them for their support.
Both teams will start their seasons on November 4 with exhibition games in the Mullins Center. The women's team will play Bishops University at 5 p.m., followed by the men facing Bridgeport at 7:30 p.m.
t was a night for the fans. The dunk contest, the speeches, the three-point contest, the scrimmage at the end of the night - it was all to put fans in the stands come November.
The students packed the long ends of the stands at the Curry Hicks Cage on Friday night for Midnight Madness, the annual preseason basketball event that borders on the ridiculous.
Travis Ford, Marnie Dacko, Sam the Minuteman, the Maroon Platoon and Athletic Director John McCutcheon were all in the house to see the men's and women's basketball teams have a couple hours of fun.
Introductions began the night. The announcer alternated between men's and women's teams until the spotlight shined on Ford, who promptly took the microphone, and did some serious public relations work with the fans.
"We got a group of guys who worked really hard to prepare for this season," Ford said. "We think we're one of the best teams in the Atlantic 10 this year, but we can't do it without you. We need you this year."
Last season, in Ford's first campaign, attendance numbers went up from the 2004-05 season, but still fell short of forming a raucous home-court crowd. So this night, even though it meant relatively little for his team basketball-wise, takes high precedence with Ford because of the direct contact with the student body.
After Ford and Dacko finished their brief speeches at mid-court, the players warmed up on opposite ends of the court. The women wore white Midnight Madness shirts, and the men wore maroon practice jerseys. UMass cheerleaders used this in-between time to toss some free shirts into the crowd to keep the students occupied.
The three-point contest ensued, and it was the battle of the sexes. The men - represented by Luke Bonner, James Life and Brandon Thomas - squared off against the women, and took the competition for the second straight year, winning 32-23.
Then there was the dunk contest, preceded by lay-up lines, which proved entertaining because the players practiced for the contest with a couple of windmill dunks and tosses off of the backboard.
Gary Forbes, Etienne Brower, Tony Gaffney, Stephane Lasme and Ricky Harris participated. Sam the Minuteman and the leader of the Maroon Platoon were among the judges who determined the winner. Brower, the defending champion, successfully defended his title after donning an old-school Jeff Viggiano jersey for his final dunk.
The night ended with an intrasquad scrimmage from the men's team, and the festivities ended at 11. Most fans in attendance left after the dunk contest, but some students, who showed up at 11:15 p.m. on Friday night, weren't happy to see things end earlier than advertised.
"I came for Midnight Madness and we got here at 11, and it was all over," said Ben Weisman, a UMass senior.
Weisman and his friends shared their thoughts about the Minutemen's upcoming season.
"I think it's all in the coach to make us a cohesive unit," Weisman said. "We have the talent. We need the organization. Oh yeah, and bring Marcus Camby back."
Weisman wasn't the only one with strong opinions about Ford and company.
"I think they have some good potential, but it's probably a long shot to win the A-10," said John Clark, another UMass senior. "They got Travis Ford, and he's got to keep them focused, rally the troops and keep the talent on line. They'll definitely win the A-10 if they keep the talent on line. In two years we are going to be legit."
Another senior in the entourage, Greg Mann, had some choice words for Ford.
"I e-mail the coach all of the time, and I always get nothing back," Mann said. "This is my fourth year as a fan, and I want to see them do something this year."
Clark also chimed in about senior captain Rashaun Freeman's game.
"Rashaun has to learn how to pass out of double teams," Clark said. "If they can fix that, then they could be amazing."
This group of seniors plan to attend most of the home games this season, and are contemplating forming the "Stephane Lasme SWAT Team" if they are able to make enough T-shirts.
McCutcheon watched the action from the second level of the Cage, and cheered for Forbes and Brower during the dunk contest. In a recent interview, he called the UMass student body a "sleeping giant," and said UMass sports have barely "scratched the surface" as far as participation is concerned. McCutcheon and Ford hope that nights like last Friday are just the beginning of a season full of fan enthusiasm.
If the Minutemen can get more fans like the UMass seniors planning to form the SWAT Team, then they should receive a warm welcome in their home-opener on Nov. 11 against Dartmouth.